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Powerlessness, the 12-Steps of AA, and White Women

By Marie Daverio, Montclair State University 

As a female recovering alcoholic and addictions counseling student, I am disturbed by some misconceptions in research and textbooks concerning the concept of powerlessness, particularly in the application of a 12-step program to white women alcoholics. I hope sharing my experience and observations will help clinical mental health counselors become more effective when working with white female alcoholics.

The research and textbooks I’ve read as part of my addictions counseling program have often stated that a 12-step program can be less effective for women because it was developed from a white male perspective. The specific issue mentioned repeatedly is that of “powerlessness,” which is detailed in the first step of the 12 steps. 

The argument is that women, coming from a position of oppression and powerlessness, are not helped by an additional emphasis on powerlessness. From my own personal experience and from that of other white women in recovery I have known over the last 17 years, I believe this argument is incorrect, because it misstates the purpose and application of “powerlessness” in the first step. 

The first step of the 12-steps is, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1976, p. 56). This step does not state that the alcoholic is powerless over anything other than alcohol. It is not a statement of oppression, of being “less than,” of being incapable of dealing with their situation or their life. Rather, it is a very important and necessary admission by alcoholics that they cannot control the addiction; once they take a drink, they cannot control how much they drink or the outcome. 

While this may seem obvious to everyone else in the alcoholic’s life, the alcoholic herself often does not recognize this important fact. 

I have had any number of recovering alcoholics—both men and women—tell me that they didn’t realize it was the first drink that caused all the problems. Without recognizing that they cannot control the addiction, an alcoholic will see no need for change or for assistance in dealing with their alcoholism, and will most likely continue to abuse alcohol. It is therefore critical that an alcoholic, whether a man or a woman, recognize that in the instance of using alcohol, they have lost control, that they are powerless over alcohol once they begin to use it.

Ironically, there is actual power in this admission of powerlessness over the addiction. Instead of spending time and energy trying to “control” drinking, they can now spend this time and energy on solving the problems in their lives. This starts by working the 12 steps, but also includes many other life issues. Many alcoholics seek counseling as well as 12-step meetings in early recovery; I found the combination to be extremely therapeutic. 

Drinking is often a symptom of underlying psychological and/or developmental problems; once alcoholics stop trying to “control” their drinking, they can begin to address these underlying issues.